By Brannon Howse
The Scripture: Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart.
The Twist: These verses are often used to promote socialism.
Correctly interpreting these verses hinges on the meaning of the phrase, “They had all things in common.” Some argue simplistically, “That’s socialism. They had all things in common; they were all the same. They pooled their money; they pooled their resources; they sold everything they had and lived communally. It was a form of socialism.” And some even go so far as to say, “It’s the beginning of what ultimately becomes communism.”
But is that what the disciples were doing? Does the Bible really embrace the idea of socialism?
In a word: No.
Remember that Scripture never contradicts itself. So before we draw a sweeping conclusion from a few verses taken out of context, we must ask other questions. Does the Bible speak about private property? Yes. One of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shall not steal.” When the government takes your property—which it doesn’t have the right to do—that is theft.
To be sure, a government can rightly charge taxes. We see in Old Testament Israel, a theocracy, that the people have to pay a tithe, which is their tax. And in the New Testament, Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” So the Bible legitimizes a government charging taxes. Socialism, however, tries to legitimize the government confiscating money and property as a part of taxation to “redistribute wealth.” That violates the right to personal property affirmed by the Seventh Commandment.
So what does it mean when Acts 2 says that “they had all things in common”? Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary describes the passage this way:
The greatness of the event raised them [the disciples and their followers] above the world, and the Holy Ghost filled them with such love as made everyone to be to one another as to himself and so made all things common, not by destroying property, but by doing away with selfishness and causing charity.
These people were in a relationship as a church together, lovingly caring for one another as they would care for themselves. And as needs arose, they would sell property to meet those needs. But people still had their own property; it wasn’t communal living. They retained their own homes.
My friend Tommy Ice wrote an article a few years ago that I keep posted on our website at worldviewweekend.com. Writing on this topic, Dr. Ice says:
However, we know from the previous context, Acts 2:5-11, that many of the new converts were visiting Jerusalem from many other countries. Therefore, in order to support the physical needs of the out-of-towners, while they were being instructed in their new faith, the entire group pitched in to help pay for their needs.
He goes on to say:
The statement that the believers “had all things in common” meant that many gave their private property to the cause of supporting the new congregation. This statement demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit at work in their lives so that they willingly—willingly—gave of their material wealth, just as many believers do today from their private property.
I agree 100 percent with Dr. Ice. He wrote this article responding to an article by Gregory Paul, who had written in the August 12, 2011 Washington Post, an article entitled, “From Jesus’ Socialism to Capitalistic Christianity.” In it, Paul argues that Acts 2 teaches socialism:
But to understand just how non-capitalistic Christianity is supposed to be, we turn to the first chapter after the Gospels, Acts, which describes the events of the early Church. Chapter 2 and 4 state that all the believers were together and had everything in common.
Now, folks, that’s the outright socialism of the type described millennia later by Marx – who likely got the general idea from the Gospels.
To get just how central collectivism is to Christian canon, consider that the Bible contains the first description of socialism in history. Anti-socialist Christians also claim that the Biblical version was voluntary. Aside from it being obvious that the biblical version of God was not the anti-socialist Christian capitalists commonly proclaim he was, some dark passages in Acts indicate how deeply pro-socialist the New Testament deity is.
Paul then twists other scripture to make his case:
Chapter 5 details how when a Church member fails to turn over all his property to the Church, he fell dead and died. When his wife later did the same, she fell down dead. Great fear seized the whole Church and all who heard about these events.
Dear readers, [he says] does this not sound like a form of terror-enforced-communism imposed by a God who thinks that Christians who fail to join the collective are worthy of death? Not only is socialism a Christian invention, so is its extreme communistic variant.
He goes on to write:
And finally, if you don’t like socialism and communism stop blaming atheists and other secularists for concocting egalitarian collectivism backed by fear of death. It got its start long ago in the Good Book.
But Gregory Paul is 100 percent wrong. Let’s break it down to see how. Were the disciples involved in collective living, communal living, socialism? No, they weren’t. Did God really strike Ananias and Sapphira dead because they didn’t give over all their property? No, He did not.
Look closely at Acts 2:45: “and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.” The clear implication is that these people had their own possessions, and they sold them (by their own choosing) as anyone had need. And: “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house”—they owned houses. They were not involved in some kind of communal living. They owned their own homes, and they had their own property. And they were willing to liquidate property to free up cash when needs required it. Notice, too, how the verse continues: “they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart.”
Now go over to Acts 4:34, “Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold.” So, again, they owned houses, and they had lands. As needs came up, they were willing to sell them to meet those needs. But they owned their own property. Look at Acts 4:36-37, which says, “Barnabas having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
Acts 5 offers further proof that the early Christians had property of their own that they could sell if they chose to in order to raise funds, or they could keep it. They could give a portion of the proceeds from the sale, or they could give it all, as Acts 5:1-5 demonstrates. This scripture also shows that God didn’t strike Ananias and Sapphira dead because of not selling their property. They were struck dead for lying about it:
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession.
Note well: They sold a possession—which means they owned it and had the right to sell it or not. Now continue:
And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
This is key: “While it remained.” In other words, while the land was yours, you had it in your trust. “While it remained, was it not your own?” This is a rhetorical question to which the obvious answer is, “Yes, it was yours to do with as you wanted.” It was Ananias’s land before he sold it, and the proceeds of the sale were his after the sale. He could do whatever he wanted with it. He could sell it and give away all of the money or give away a portion of the money. The sin issue Peter addressed was that Ananias lied about what he had done. He said he was giving all of the money, but he actually gave only a portion of what he got for the land. He kept back some for himself, which would have been fine—if he had not lied about it.
After Peter points out that Ananias has lied to God (ouch!), “Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things.”
Gregory Paul did worse than just take this scripture out of context. He misrepresented the most natural interpretation of the statements within the text itself. He said Ananias was struck dead because he didn’t sell everything and give it away, but it’s clear from the passage itself that Ananias died for lying about how much he had available to give from the proceeds of the sale of his land. If he hadn’t wanted to give it all, he didn’t have to. He should have been honest with Peter, but since he wasn’t, he “fell down and breathed his last.”
John MacArthur makes several excellent points about this idea of compulsory giving—socialism. He shows that the New Testament doesn’t even require giving:
Two kinds of giving are taught consistently throughout Scripture: giving to the government (always compulsory), and giving to God (always voluntary). The issue has been greatly confused, however, by some who misunderstand the nature of the Old Testament tithes. Tithes were not primarily gifts to God, but taxes for funding the national budget in Israel.
Because Israel was a theocracy, the Levitical priests acted as the civil government. So the Levite’s tithe (Leviticus 27:30-33) was a precursor to today’s income tax, as was a second annual tithe required by God to fund a national festival (Deuteronomy 14:22-29). Smaller taxes were also imposed on the people by the law (Leviticus 19:9-10; Exodus 23:10-11). So the total giving required of the Israelites was not 10 percent, but well over 20 percent. All that money was used to operate the nation.
All giving apart from that required to run the government was purely voluntary (cf. Exodus 25:2; 1 Chronicles 29:9). Each person gave whatever was in his heart to give; no percentage or amount was specified.
New Testament believers are never commanded to tithe. Matthew 22:15-22 and Romans 13:1-7 tell us about the only required giving in the Church age, which is the paying of taxes to the government. Interestingly enough, we in America presently pay between 20 and 30 percent of our income to the government—a figure very similar to the requirement under the theocracy of Israel.
The guideline for our giving to God and His work is found in 2 Corinthians 9:6-7: “Now this I say, he who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly; and he who sows bountifully shall also reap bountifully. Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Did you get that? Today, we pay taxes to our government, much as the Israelites paid their tithe or tax. Israel had their tithes; we have our taxes. While it was required to give to the government then just as it is now, giving to the work of the Lord—even then!—was voluntary, not compulsory. Giving to the work of the Lord is not compulsory, but “rendering to Caesar” is a requirement.
In this regard, take note of 1 Corinthians 16:2: “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.” The direction here is that you set money aside, store it up, laying aside some of what you own as you prosper. But it’s done voluntarily. We see this also in 2 Corinthians 9:7-8, “So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity.” That doesn’t teach us that socialism is an appropriate economic system. It doesn’t suggest that we should take everything we have, sell it, and redistribute the wealth. The key is that “each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Another twist people often give to Acts 2 still doesn’t accurately reflect the meaning of the scripture. Some will say things like, “They were involved in communal living. They were definitely pooling all their resources and dividing it among them. But they chose to do it voluntarily.” Then they say the reason this doesn’t teach socialism is that “as soon as you bring in the government and make the sharing compulsory, it’s wrong.”
But Acts 2 doesn’t even reflect voluntary communal living. The people lived separately. They had their own lands; they had their own homes. Otherwise they couldn’t have been “going house to house.” So there’s no need to even crack the door open this much to suggest that there is anything socialistic about the Acts 2 passage. There simply is not.
There is even some Christian “newspeak” thrown around in place of “socialism” these days, and you should be extremely wary of it. You’ll hear the word “missional” used in this regard. This has become such a problem that Worldview Weekend produced a DVD called Missional Madness: Why Christians Should Reject Social Justice and Its Missional Madness and Reclaim the Great Commission. We recorded it at our Branson 2013 Worldview Weekend with Jesse Johnson. He addressed this issue because it affects so many young Christians today. Influential people like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis promote it incessantly and mislead many youth into believing in redistribution of wealth. Jesse goes into great detail distinguishing what was going on in Israel—Israel, a theocracy, where they cared for each other and for those who lived inside their borders so as to be a witness to the world.
Similarly, we care for people inside the New Testament Church today; we don’t redistribute our wealth or sell our things to give to unbelievers. You won’t find a passage of Scripture that says we’re to do that, but you will find lots of Scripture that says we are to care for the needs of those inside the New Testament Church. No one inside the New Testament Church should be lacking what they need.
The Bible does not command or suggest that we are to sell our resources, property, houses, or lands collectively and give it away to the unsaved poor. There is not one verse in all of the New Testament that instructs the Church to be involved in such activities. Although some people use Matthew 25:36 this way—“I was naked and you clothed me; I was imprisoned, and you visited me”—the context shows that Jesus is actually speaking about those who did these kindnesses for fellow believers during the tribulation. He is also speaking of this when He says, in talking about setting up His millennial kingdom, “You did this for these, my brothers.” Matthew 25 describes Christians ministering to Christians.
So: Don’t get suckered into an argument from Acts 2 that socialism is a legitimate economic and governmental system. And don’t get hoodwinked by people who say, “We should be involved in social justice (socialism) because it’s ‘missional’.” To think that those things are plain from this scripture is not the case. The only thing that’s plain about this twisted interpretation is that it’s just plain wrong.
Copyright 2014 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative.